By Tabassum Zakaria
(Reuters) - Azerbaijan asked the United States on Thursday to support its bid to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who pledged to build ties with the Caucasus ally, did not offer any help beyond supporting international mediation which has yet to reconcile Azerbaijan with its ex-Soviet neighbor Armenia.
Thousands of people were killed in fighting in Karabakh before a truce was struck in 1994. Karabakh Armenians now control the enclave and a swathe of Azeri territory around it. Azerbaijan, upset by a lack of progress in mediation efforts by the Minsk Group of 11 states, led by France, the United States and Russia, has urged the European Union and other Western powers to get involved directly.
"What we want from the United States as our ally and partner is for it to support Azerbaijan in this conflict and demand that Armenia immediately withdraws its occupation forces," Defense Minister Safar Abiev told a joint news conference with Rumsfeld.
At the start of his visit, Rumsfeld said Washington was committed to developing ties with Azerbaijan -- an oil-rich country which should start pumping oil to the West through a pipeline across Georgia and Turkey next year. "I agree completely that the security relationship between our two countries continues to grow and strengthen," Rumsfeld said during a meeting with President Ilham Aliev.
But he avoided responding to Abiev's call. "As you know the United States supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan," he told the news conference, adding that Washington was involved in the Minsk group.
Ties between the United States and Azerbaijan, which is seeking to develop ties with NATO in contrast with its pro-Russian arch-foe Armenia, strengthened after Baku backed the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan by sending 30 troops. Azerbaijan became the only predominantly Muslim state to send troops to support the U.S.-led military engagement in Iraq. Around 150 Azeri troops are deployed in Iraq.
(AP-Photolur photo: Rumsfeld and his wife Joyce greeted after arriving in Baku on Wednesday.)